Frankl: He who has a WHY can bear any HOW

Despair = Suffering – Meaning

So Viktor Frankl says in the video above, summarizing his theory of logotherapy, which I’ve read at greater length in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In other words, if people suffer but see meaning in their life, and even in their suffering, they do not despair, as he himself did not despair when he was in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

He is therefore, as he also says in this video, the anti-Sartre. Sartre and the other existentialists believed that we have to accept the meaninglessness of our existence. I, in my black-turtleneck and Gauloise phase (everyone has one), used to think that was cool. But Frankl thinks it is nonsense.

Or rather, he thinks that it is unhealthy and unhelpful. Hence logotherapy, which

focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy).

He calls it logotherapy because

Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.

According to logotherapy,

this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.

Speaking of the will to power, Frankl likes to quote Nietzsche:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.

Those people who do see meaning in their lives, says Frankl, are able to

transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.

And here you see how this is relevant for my book, which is about the two impostors, triumph and disaster.


I want to agree with Frankl, but the trouble starts when he describes how he applies his approach to actual therapy. To me it sounds like semantic trickery. He meets desperate people and tries to change their attitude, but really he only does some conceptual gymnastics and calls that meaning.

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

I don’t doubt that the old man, out of love for his wife, preferred to bear the pain of being the survivor so that she did not have to. But his wife was still gone. His job (surviving her) was done. Pointing out that he had saved her pain did not give him meaning for his life from that point forward.

So my critique of logotherapy is really the same as my critique of religion: Sure, it might be helpful to see meaning (= believe in God), but that does not mean that there actually is meaning (=God). Sartre might be right after all.

That said, I am impressed enough with Frankl to include him in my pantheon of great thinkers.

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29 thoughts on “Frankl: He who has a WHY can bear any HOW

  1. …….Pointing out that he had saved her pain did not give him meaning for his life from that point forward………

    Did Frankl say that this man didn’t have meaning in his life from that point forward, or is this your opinion? How about that this man’s life was given meaning in his mind by having survived his wife? That would have given meaning to his life from that point forward.

    …… might be helpful to see meaning (= believe in God), but that does not mean that there actually is meaning (=God). Sartre might be right after all……..

    I suggest that whether there is, or isn’t a God, is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether one believes there is a God, or no God. For any of us, what we believe is our reality. Any meaning we give to our lives or circumstances is a product of our belief, and nothing else. Meaning is all about belief.

    All so-called facts, all so-called objective realities, regardless of what they are, may be no more than the sum total of our beliefs. They exist only by our agreement.

  2. Hi. My view’s similar to Phillip Phogg’s. Despite what Frankl himself says, his and Sartre’s views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Human beings are meaning-making machines AND the world is not made of some “stuff”, some material, called truth or meaning, but is instead empty and meaning-less. We supply the meaning; it doesn’t precede us or exist independently of us. Given this, it’s in our hands to supply the meaning that suits or doesn’t suit. Cheers.

  3. I want to make sure I get what is being said in the first two comments, here.

    Are you saying that there are no eternal verities (protection of one’s family, showing dignity to others, etc.),that everything is subjective, subject to our human whims?

    Are you saying that there is no meaning out there in the cosmos? That until we label “it”, it is meaningless?

    If I say something is good, it’s good?
    Just because I say it? In my reality?

  4. Totally agree with Solid.

    Meaning is a human invention. Just like good and evil, god and the devil etc. Without our narrative – working in a soup kitchen is no better clubbing baby seals for fun.

    The thing is, humans seem happier and more productive finding meaning in our lives. People facing great adversity (sickness, war etc.) have turned to their faith in God to help them continue to function. As the saying goes – “There are no Atheists in the foxhole”

    Meaning is what has caused us to evolve above our base instincts of survival and procreation. It is a useful tool but nothing more.

  5. Cherie – You get it perfectly!!

    Think not only of abstract “meaning”, but also of the “physical” world, and of the old chestnut about a tree falling in a forest out of earshot of anyone. Does the falling tree make a noise independent of anyone hearing it? Or is the noise made only when someone hears? I believe that any noise is made only when we hear it. It is a function of the stuff inside our ears resonating with soundwaves from the fall of the tree. Since this is what I believe, it is, for me, a fact.

    I believe also that all “matter”, whether inanimate (a table) or animate (a human) is an amorphous quantum soup which only becomes “matter” when we observe it, or touch it. Thus you and I are part of this amorphous quantum soup. What we believe we look like, comes only from our observing ourselves.

    I repeat: all this is only what I believe!!!

  6. This has become quite metaphysical. We should market ourselves as a philosophy seminar. Well, we sort of already are.

    I love Solid Gold’s phrase, “meaning-making machines”. And I agree that that’s what we are.

    By coming to Frankl’s defense (not that I critqued him very heavily!), we are collectively elevating him even higher. Perhaps he is a GREAT thinker?

    In general, I like to critique ideas to test them and to strengthen them. Let me try again: Continuing Joe’s logic, we have evolved biologically to narrate meaning into the world around us. So some of us are innately better at it than others. What we call resilience is really just an enhanced ability by A to “make meaning” as compared to B.

    Since we are critiquing logotherapy, however, that raises the question of my example above with the old man: Can the old man show up, sit down with Frankl, do some fancy conceptual gymnastics, and walk out with meaning?

    Much of this “meaning making” cannot be very convincing, above all to the meaning-making machines themselves. That’s what I’m saying. You see meaning or you don’t. No?

    Philopp Phogg: No, Frankl didn’t say what happened to the old man next. You notice that Frankl interprets his departure to mean that he (frankl) has given him meaning. In reality, the old man might have gone and jumped off a bridge.

    Just to be clear once again, guys: I LIKE Frankl, which is why I’m devoting space to him here. I BUY most of his thinking. I’m just testing it to find out where the holes are.

    • In the tale of the widower GP, it appears that his departure from Frankl was an indication of the attainment of a solution (whether that be that the GP continued to live or decided to end his life). The meaning that Frankl imparted to the GP was a sense of ‘X is-or-is-not worth the cost of Y’ – it’s a means of performing a conceptual trade-off. Does the GP feel that ‘sparing his wife the pain of being a widow’ was ‘worth the cost’ of ‘being the widower’? Either way one of them was going to die – so the grief/tragedy of death isn’t being addressed by Frankl – he glosses over it as an implicit fact. Remember the goal of obtaining meaning – to have a ‘why’ which enables us to bear any ‘how’ – i.e. my wife died and I suffer her loss, but at least she isn’t suffering over my loss, so I am able to bear my grief because it is meaningful to be the ‘martyr’ for someone I love.

  7. On meaning making, the power of stories/narration and the scientifically established therapeutic value of specific kinds of new meaning:

    Quoting from John Haidt’s excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis (poorly titled and marketed as a “shelf help” book, but its really a remarkable synthesis of the latest psychology, neuroscience and ancient wisdom)

    On the uses of Adversity page 143
    ‘We can’t stop ourselves from creating what McAdams describes as “an evolving story that integrates a reconstructed past, perceiebd present, and anticipated future into a coherent and vitalizing life-myth”… [which is] a work of historical fiction’

    In Blessed are the Sense Makers page 147 he describes an experiment done by Pennebaker, which demonstrated that people who wrote about ‘the most upsetting or traumatic experience of their lives” for 15 minutes for 4 days had a lower incidence of flu (an other illnesses) 6 months later.

    And telling in further analysis on page 148 ‘Pennebaker discovered… the people in his studies who used their writing time to vent, got no benefit. The people who showed deep insight into the causes and consequences of the event on their first day got no benefit. They had already made sense of things. It was the people who showed progress across the four days, who showed increasing insight… whose health improved over the next year…. you have to use words and the words have to help create a meaningful story’
    >> its clearly the creation of new meaning/sense that helps

    You can look at more of the book using Google book reader at

    And get more details at

    • Eerie! Are you my mini-me?

      The reason I’m sure is that a) I have opined on Haidt’s title and b) I highlighted that exact quote when I read his book, then looked up the footnote and dug out McAdams’ work, which I then footnoted in the first chapter of my book.

      Come clean! When I woke up at 3am last night to pee, I logged on as … Jag, right?

    • Good to hear that you’ve read Haidt.
      Not so good to hear you are a middle of the night pee-er.

      Speaking of appropriateness of titles – any progress on yours?

  8. Hi again. Just a quick point re the old man. My view is that before he went to see Frankl, he wasn’t making no meaning; he was making meaning that wasn’t helpful. He was making meaning like, “How can I live without my wife?”, “Life’s not worth living without her”, “I’m a useless old man with no purpose”, “I’m nothing without her,” etc. When Frankl asked the question, the old man could generate a new meaning, “My life’s worth living because I saved my wife from suffering”, “I am taking on the suffering my wife might have endured and I do it willingly because of our love.” Cheers.

    • Yes, I agree. Then again, I have a wife too, and I could see myself in his position saying to myself, Okay, I did what I had to do, which was to let her go first. Now, I’ll follow.

  9. I agree that there is a little bit of trickery. Suppose the G.P. had said, “I’d be burning in hell right now instead of her.” (just looking for holes)

  10. The opportunity to know- decide on why you are bleeding your soul allows you to make a sense of your situation. It is no longer a matter of madness; personal or objective, moral or ethical. The result in the mind is the same whether it is a matter of semantics or a cognitive synchronicity with destiny.

    This is of no functional importance to therapy or assisted mental metabolism; psychology has no aspirations for the soul, it all comes down to a mind in anguish.

    If the individual can make it on his-her own, so much the better. It is definitely less costly and implies a lesser strain on the mind from circumstance.

    Pain or suffering if meaningless to the individual mind is a tad more difficult to bear.

  11. I am sorry for coming late into this discussion. I was directed to it by Andreas’ post at HBR

    There I have been making the point that there is a difference between success and victory or triumph. Success is defined from within. So catastrophe is not possible. If I have achieved it, it is for the sake of itself, not for fame or fortune’s sake. Triumph or Victory is what others make of it. And from where they project what they expect from it. If we go for that, we are not en route for success, but for failure. So it is metaphysical, or spiritual, indeed.

    As for Frankl here: The old man wasn’t searching for meaning in his life so much as for meaning of his wife’s death. That event was given meaning to by Frankl. So the old man could settle this issue and get on with whatever was left on his list.

    I am referring to John P Strelecky’s concept of the BIG FIVE FOR LIFE. It suggests success is what matters most to us. And only to us. Everybody does have things he/she wants to do, see, or experience during their lifetime. Only we can tell what this means to us. We may grow up in an environment which distracts us from those BIG FIVE FOR LIFE (Where FIVE is but a metaphor borrowed from the African Big Five).

    If there was nothing left on the old man’s list, he would have been able to rest in peace.

    Your mention of a “mean-making machines” is quite materialistic and not at all spiritual. Which is fine. But as you had been mentioning Einstein and his aversion to Quantum Physics, I would like to draw your attention to David Bohm’s concept of the “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”. I am sure Frankl would have liked it. Do you, Andreas?

  12. Hi… was researching the Nietzsche quote (“He who has a ‘Why’ can bear any ‘How'”) and came across your site and your criticism of Frankl.
    I read the Phogg response above, and I would have to agree:
    The anecdote you choose from Frankl’s book and philosophy, about the widower who realizes his suffering has meaning, is a perfect illustration of the Nietzsche quote. Whether there really is a god or not is unimportant. One must live with meaning in one’s life – some find that a god is their meaning, some find that it is simply a higher calling, if you will (doing good, living with honour, telling the truth – like Don Quixote, for example, whether what he did was wrong or right, foolish or not, it drove him, made him continue onward, though suffering every step of the way – physically and emotionally). Whether there is a god or not is not the question that Nietzsche was trying to address. And, I would go so far as to say that “meaning” does not necessarily equate to “existence of god”. So, your criticism with Frankl’s argument is fraught with semantic error, in my opinion: I would say “It doesn’t matter IF there is a god, what matters is that the widower in the story found meaning in his life…

  13. Vijay: Based on what evidence? (Applies to both assertions.) Based on what logical formulation? (To answer correctly, and to answer for you rather than await your own and the likely appeal to emotion, authority, popularity, an argument based on the just world paradox, ad hominems ad infinitum, false attributions etc etc, the previous has occured.) Thanks for playing.

    Next argument: Your stamtement is true only if true, it is not a tautology, it uses undefined terms, etce etc it’s stupid and it’s crap. (Based on what evidence? you ask? See above, and appeciate that I consider the outcomes of lazy logic to be crap and those who employ it to be stupid.) (Why am I right re crap and re stupid? See given tautologies.)

    Traveler: Since your objection relies on your statement about Einstein and you are wrong just as the person you respond to is wrong (don’t wade into the waters of QT without a goddamned swimsuit), any and all conclusions is/are wrong. Also, maybe don’t build castles of conjecture and willful thinking and every single fallacy of deduction and most inference.

    Everyone else: Rather well done, excepting the tacit (when not overt) acceptence of the mind-body problem, which does not exist when one considers the fact that only a freaking idiot could think they could think withut a thinker.

    Were any of you cognizant of your existence at some point in some past, in which you had no brain? And do you know anyone with a Broca’a trauma who talks pretty one day or any day? Or a person with eidetic memory, but no hippocampus.

    If one could not have disproved Descartes when in short pants, one wories and frightnes me…

    Daniel B Macklin
    dbmllc, an alienandroid concern which ought not concern you

  14. Phogg says that showing the man how he saved his life from pain did not give the mean meaning… I thing he missed something in his thinking. The power of gratitude (being thankful that is wife didn’t have to suffer) is a powerful thing.

  15. The certainty of the nihilists here suggests there is meaning even in meaninglessness, did they but know it.
    In the interview, Frankl seeeks to demonstrate the validity of his philosophy in its success as a therapy: a pseudo-scientific observation, albeit expressed with passion.

  16. It seems quite obvious that what Frankl helped the Doctor find meaning in his suffering, not for it. And that is precisely what Frankl proposed in logotherapy – that we find meaning IN life, not the meaning OF life.

  17. It seems quite obvious that Frankl helped the Doctor find meaning IN his suffering, not FOR it. Logo therapy teaches us to find meaning IN life, not the meaning OF life.

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